The Cat's Meow (12A)

Murder by numbers
Click to follow

Peter Bogdanovich is a director who promised so much but took some terrible wrong turns. Hard to imagine that the man behind The Last Picture Show would spend most of the Nineties slogging through TV movies, though he remained busy as a film historian and produced an excellent book of interviews with his hero, Orson Welles. It would be too optimistic to say his career is back on track with The Cat's Meow - it came out in the US two years ago and then disappeared - but it boasts a lively cast and an eagerness to send up Hollywood in all its sleaze and self-regard.

Peter Bogdanovich is a director who promised so much but took some terrible wrong turns. Hard to imagine that the man behind The Last Picture Show would spend most of the Nineties slogging through TV movies, though he remained busy as a film historian and produced an excellent book of interviews with his hero, Orson Welles. It would be too optimistic to say his career is back on track with The Cat's Meow - it came out in the US two years ago and then disappeared - but it boasts a lively cast and an eagerness to send up Hollywood in all its sleaze and self-regard.

It is based on a famous scandal whose details remain uncertain to this day. In November 1924, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst threw a party on his yacht, the Oneida, sailing off the southern California coast. Passengers included his actress lover Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), the novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), and Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), hot from an affair with a 16-year-old actress he's made pregnant and now making eyes at Davies. Guest of honour is film producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), who fails to enlist "W R" (Edward Herrmann) on his latest commercial venture and so resorts, Iago-like, to playing on the big man's sexual jealousy. The other guests, meanwhile, occupy themselves with bitching, bootleg liquor and increasingly hysterical outbreaks of the Charleston.

The crux of the story is Hearst's involvement in a possible murder on board, which is promptly hushed up; the only witness, aspiring gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), is mysteriously rewarded with a lifetime contract on Hearst newspapers. Bogdanovich handles all this elegantly enough, and certain members of the ensemble (Dunst as the kittenish comedienne, Herrmann as the tycoon who acts like an overgrown kid) extract real juice from their impersonations. But Steven Peros's script, straining for sophistication, limps some way behind; it aims vaguely at the poisonous urbanity of Gosford Park, and perhaps under Altman's control these sea-bound shenanigans might have caught fire. Instead, it has the genteel inertia of an Agatha Christie, and its insights into Hollywood society - a snakepit of phoneys and narcissists where the rich and powerful get away with murder - are scarcely fresh.

The young Scots director Paul McGuigan is proving himself quite the connoisseur of outlandish violence. First it was football hooligans in his adaptation of Irving Welsh's The Acid House, then psychotic hoodlums in Gangster No.1, and now, in The Reckoning, he goes all the way back to 14th-century England to uncover murder most foul in a plague town. Based on Barry Unsworth's 1995 novel Morality Play, the story is an involving but awkwardly plotted rumination on the corrupted nature of justice.

It centres upon a disgraced cleric, Nicholas (Paul Bettany), who is fleeing an adulterous liaison when he stumbles across a band of travelling players on their way to Durham. Led by the darkly charismatic Martin (Willem Dafoe), the troupe agree to take on Nicholas as a bit player, and, on arriving at a hilltop town, they prepare to stage their play. Yet the town is preoccupied with a real drama of its own, the recent death of a young boy, Thomas Wells, and the conviction of a mute woman (Elvira Minguez) for his murder. Compared with this incendiary stuff the troupe's drama of perdition, The Fall of Adam and Eve, looks distinctly old-hat, and the townsfolk stay away in droves. Needing money, Martin makes a bold decision to ditch the Bible play and stage "a real story - that touches us directly". What else but The Murder of Thomas Wells - something the people can't fail to find interesting.

So, with a remarkable lack of fanfare, we seem to have been transported right back to the birth of improvised drama, though no mention is made, thank heaven, of the term "workshop", and none of the actors asks Martin what their "motivation" might be. Where the film begins to wobble is in the uproar created by the first performance of the murder play. It becomes clear to the actors that the official version of the boy's murder is a fabrication, that the mute woman is innocent and that the real killer is still at large. Here is the prompt for Bettany and Dafoe to don their metaphorical deerstalkers and turn detective, identifying discrepancies in the evidence, questioning witnesses afresh and even performing an emergency autopsy on the murder victim. Go, Sherlock!

Up to this point, it should be said, The Reckoning has sped along absorbingly, edited to a swift, confident rhythm by Andrew Hulme and nicely acted. McGuigan periodically scans the anonymous crowd and picks out faces that, if not quite the Brueghel grotesques beloved of the genre, are at least convincingly knobbly and gnarled. The medieval castle town, built specifically for the film in Spain, is also a feather in the production's cap.

But in terms of story McGuigan eventually loses hold of the reins and the plot goes crashing through the fences of plausibility. However piquant might be the discovery that rigor mortis had already gripped the murdered boy's corpse - thus exonerating the accused woman - it would be quite another thing for a beefy soldier with a great twanging sword to hear this, look sheepish and shrug the equivalent of "Fair enough".

The past really is a foreign country, and the intricacies of pathology did not hold sway in these harsh feudal times. It's a pity; no movie this year has begun so intriguingly and ended with such a fizzle.

Comments